The Republican Party hasn’t captured a majority of the 18-25 demographic for decades now, and with President-elect Obama renewing the debate about youth in politics, it’s about time we ask ourselves, “How can the GOP capture its fair share of the youth vote?” As a rare member of that demographic who votes Republican (Obama won the youth vote 66-32), I have a few answers — and they all have to do with some fundamental differences in mindsets and rhetoric. The disconnect is more about words and less about policies.
The 18-25 demographic is made up of a few types of voters, the two largest being the idealistic and apathetic. Somehow, election cycle after election cycle, the Democrats manage to mobilize the idealistic and either scare the apathetic into action or, in the event of a pro-Republican cycle, keep them home. If the GOP could somehow make the case that there is idealism in conservatism and there is an urgency of action, we wouldn’t lose the youth vote. It is true that there is a wave of liberal thought on college campuses, but policy points aren’t driving the difference in young adult voting.
Let’s start with the idealists. Throughout the last election cycle, Republicans made fun of the “hope and change” mantra of the Obama campaign and criticized it for lacking substance. What most didn’t realize was that he was making a direct appeal to the 18-25 demographic. Yes, he was attacking the Bush administration by pushing “change,” but he was also trying to inspire a group of young adults who favor big ideas over meticulous details and new vision over long-developed experience. John McCain ran as the pragmatist, while Barack Obama ran as the idealist. Idealism sells to the youth vote.
Meanwhile, the Democrats launched a massive PR campaign against George W. Bush, touting the economic collapse. The media played right into it, and soon enough there was panic. This was the play for the apathetic, who felt they had to vote. With a coalition of those with their heads in the clouds and those who normally couldn’t care less, the Democrats won the youth vote with massive margins.
How does the Republican Party change this? It starts with an assault on the apathetic. Following September 11th, there were very few apathetic youth around me. Everyone watched the news, followed the war, and listened to our history teachers far more intently than we ever had before. It was a crisis. And the war is far from over.
Also, the Republican Party needs to explain that my generation is paying into a broken entitlement system, our borders are broken, and radical Islam is still growing in the dark corners of the world. Al Gore and the Democrats have teenagers convinced the seas are going to rise and flood New York City, but the Republican Party can’t convince us that we’re going to be bankrupt in 50 years? It sounds like we need to take a page out of their playbook and talk about genuine crises that are building.
The more complicated task, and the more meaningful, is a play towards the idealists. The difference is that the idealists do watch the news, do read the newspapers, and vote in much larger numbers. The Democrats have dominated among the idealists for the past two decades by talking about building a more inclusive society, helping the downtrodden, and fighting for the oppressed. These rhetorical ploys attract the idealists. We need to fight this by putting out an inspirational conservative platform.
We need to emphasize the elements of conservatism that empower the individual, expand liberty, and defend freedom. We need to break down issues like earmarks into simple terms, and explain that it’s not about changing the rules in the Senate. It’s about fixing our government and building a future without debt, a future with strong American consumers making individual decisions. We need to talk about the elements of conservatism that create a strong culture, instead of talking about the “inside baseball” issues surrounding the Supreme Court. We need an ambassador to the idealists just as John McCain or Mitt Romney were ambassadors to the pragmatists who focused on policy solutions but not public relations solutions. To win the youth, conservatism needs to become “sexy” again, and we have to start talking about issues in a way that shows that they matter to my generation.
We don’t have to dumb down our agenda or abandon our principles for populist rhetoric, but we need a strategy that convinces people they need to vote for America’s future, and that the Republican Party isn’t the party of old ideas or “rich white guys.” As much as I hate to admit it, the Democrats have successfully made that our image. We need a new strong message that focuses on the urgency of today and our ability to strengthen not only ourselves, but our country going into the future. We need more idealism in the Republican Party.